Friday, September 22, 2006

New Jersey Turnpike

Recently, I have had to travel a lot to NJ for work. Needless to say, that means a lot of time on I-95 and the NJTP fighting the congestion and paying a king's ransom in tolls. It is a dismal drive through concrete, asphalt and industrial America. But the one intriguing part of the trip were the names of the rest stops along the NJTP like Thomas Edison, James Fenimore Cooper, Joyce Kilmer, Molly Pitcher, Alexander Hamilton, and Walt Whitman. Of course, I made it a point to stop at the Walt Whitman Rest Area to gas up. I don’t know what I was expecting to find there, but I certainly expected to find something brighter and more vibrant than the dreary, depressing area I found with its tiny little food mall. Walt certainly deserves something better attached to his name. I couldn’t leave with this impression in my mind so I used some poetic license to come up with the following:

Walt Whitman Service Area, NJTP

As the needle inches toward E
I spot the sign, 5 miles to go.
Fumes or not, I have an appointment
to keep. Not with the gas station
attendant, whose union won’t let anyone
pump their own gas, or the TCBY
workers whose frozen yogurts
taste as sweet as the real
thing or the Burger King flunkies
scenting the parking lot with their charbroiled
offerings. The turnpike exit fades into
scarred pavement, the mini-mall’s fa├žade
is torn down, steel 2x4s nailed into position
for a face lift. I ease to a stop between
the emptiness of dirt white lines.
The sweltering heat embraces me with
its afternoon shimmer as my
eyes scan the horizon. Then I see
him, there behind the buildings, the good
grey heron striding through a ditch of black
water. His eyes are blue as the bards
of Camden. They stare me down, baptize
my image in the mirrors of their lakes.
I want to say, “today your books may rot
in the used stalls and school kids laugh
at your bravado, but I’ve come here to find
you again, reincarnated, a plume
of feathers atop your head. My words
have become nothing more than the cardboard
butterfly you used to balance on your fingertips
as you posed for the photographers.
A bit of old-age trickery. I need you to teach me
the joy of myself, how to balance my soul
on a blade of grass, catch a ray
of sunlight with my tongue.” He croaks
his understanding as he swallows
something bitter that could be my heart,
unfurls his wings to fly into a lone pine tree.
My song of the open road continues
with the rush of tires on pavement,
the wind parting my hair, and a feather
taped to the rear view mirror
to remind me where I am going.

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